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Jean-Jacques Rousseau | Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Rousseaus philosophical writings and novels, all of them rich in ethical content, inspired
a major shift in Western thought during the eighteenth century and part of the nineteenth
century. They substantially undercut the Age of Reason and inspired a new Age of
Romanticism. In the process, Rousseaus eighteenth century lifestyle and work
influenced manners and morals, the reevaluation of education, conceptions of the state
and of politics, and the reassertion of religious values. His philosophical genius led the
way to new views of human nature, liberty, free creative expression, violence, the
character of children, and the vital human and cultural importance of women.
Foundations of Rousseaus Ethics
Rousseaus ethics were rooted in his moral and religious perceptions about human nature,
human behavior, and human society. In Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), and Social Contract (1762), he systematically traced his thoughts on each of these subjects. Humanity, Rousseau
believed, was fundamentally good. Originally living alone, simply, and in a state of
nature, humanity was free, healthy, and happy. As a result of living in society, however,
humanity acquired property along with the aggressiveness required for securing and
defending that property. Depraved conditions, ignoble passions, and vices soon were
rampant: pride in possessions, false inequalities, affectations, greed, envy, lust, and
jealousy, which were attended by insecurity, personal violence, and war. Thus, although
humanity was by nature good, society itself was innately corrupt. Humanity, Rousseau
concluded, had been corrupted by society. What most educated eighteenth century
observers viewed as the rise of civilization, Rousseau viewed as its decline.
Rousseaus own experiences were responsible for this assessment of society, even though
the assessment itself was laced with idealism. He had begun life orphaned, poor, and
vagrant. Unhappily struggling through menial posts and an apprenticeship, he
subsequently rose to notoriety, thanks to the help of generous and sensitive patrons, many
of them women. He became familiar with sophisticated intellectuals and with the rich, yet
eventually he abandoned this level of society for a life of simplicity and honest, if
irrational, emotions. His style and philosophy repudiated societys standards, its
affectations, its belief in the indefinite improvement of humanity, and its philosophical
addiction to stark reason and utilitarianism.
Rousseaus Social Contract
Rousseau believed that humanity had descended from a natural state of innocence to an
artificial state of corruptiona state made worse by what he regarded as the stupidity and
self-delusion of most of his contemporaries. He fully understood that any hopes of
returning to humanitys ancient innocence were chimerical. Nevertheless, the values that
he cherishedfreedom, simplicity, honestly expressed emotions, and individualism
were still in some measure attainable as the best of a poor bargain. In his Social Contract, he indicated how the liberty that humanity had lost in the descent to civilization could
be recovered in the future.
Recovery could be achieved by means of humanitys acceptance of a new and genuine
social contract that would replace the false one to which Rousseau believed humanity
was chained. Thus, while humanity was born free and was possessed of individual will,
its freedom and will had become victims of a fraudulent society. People could, however,
surrender their independent wills to a general will; that is, to Rousseaus abstract
conception of society as an artificial person. In doing so, people could exchange their
natural independence for a new form of liberty that would be expressed through liberal,
republican political institutions. The general will, a composite of individual wills,
pledged people to devote themselves to advancing the common good. The integrity of
their new social contract and new society would depend upon their individual self-
discipline, their self-sacrifice, and an obedience imposed on them by fear of the general
Religious and Educational Ethics
The history of republican Geneva, Rousseaus birthplace, imbued him with a lifelong
admiration of republican virtues, but neither the eighteenth century Calvinism of Geneva
nor Catholicism, Rousseau believed, fostered the kind of character that would be required
for the republican life that he imagined under the Social Contract. In his view,
Catholicism, for example, directed peoples attention to otherworldly goals, while
Calvinism had succumbed to a soft and passive Christianity that was devoid of the
puritanical rigor and innocence that had once characterized it and that Rousseau admired.
Rousseau, on the contrary, advocated the cultivation of this-worldly civil values that were
appropriate for a vigorous republican society: self-discipline, simplicity, honesty,
courage, and virility. His proposed civic religion, stripped of much theological content,
was intended to fortify these values as well as to enhance patriotism and a martial spirit.
Rousseaus educational ideas, like his religious proposals, sought to inculcate republican
civic virtues by directing people toward freedom, nature, and God. Small children were to
be unsaddled and given physical freedom. Children from five to twelve were to be taught
more by direct experience and by exposure to nature than by books. Adolescents should
learn to work and should study morality and religion. Education, Rousseau argued in his
classic mile, should teach people about the good in themselves and nature, and should prepare them to live simple, republican lives.
Cranston, Maurice William. The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Explores Rousseaus views on individual experience
with special references to solitude, exile, and adversity. For further information on this work see
Magills Literary Annual review.
Crocker, Lester G. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Quest (1712-1758). New York: Macmillan, 1968. The first volume of a two-part biography. Places heavy emphasis on Rousseaus eccentric
Cullen, Daniel E. Freedom in Rousseaus Political Philosophy. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993. An assessment of Rousseaus philosophy of freedom and its impact on
his broader moral and political views.
Damrosch, Leo. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. This one volume biography is a useful addition to Rousseau scholarship. Illustrated and indexed.
Dent, N. J. H. Rousseau: An Introduction to His Psychological, Social, and Political Theory. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988. A helpful analysis of Rousseaus views about education,
rights, community, and other social and political issues.
Friedlander, Eli. J. J. Rousseau: An Afterlife of Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. An examination of the forms and focus philosophy itself viewed particularly through
the analysis of Rousseaus work Reveries of the Solitary Walker. A challenging, but important reference work.
Grant, Ruth H. Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. An instructive comparative analysis of two
important figures in political philosophy.
Grimsley, Ronald. The Philosophy of Rousseau. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1973. A reliable survey of Rousseaus ideas with an emphasis on his social thought.
Havens, George R. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A concise introductory account of Rousseaus life and career with analyses of his major works.
Hulliung, Mark. The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Shows how Rousseau both reflected and departed from
main currents in Enlightenment philosophy.
Morgenstern, Mira. Rousseau and the Politics of Ambiguity: Self, Culture, and Society. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Analyzes Rousseaus political theory
and its historical context, showing how his thought introduced notes of ambiguity that remain in
contemporary political life.
Wokler, Robert. Rousseau. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A concise and lucid introduction to Rousseaus life and thought.